The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
No matter the narrative, fictional conflict can often be reduced to five basic concepts: Person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self, person vs. society, and closed-minded businessperson vs. the exotic, easygoing and irresistible lure of quaint small-town life.
We know who usually takes that last contest; only the Harlem Globetrotters have a higher winning percentage. 1983’s Local Hero was hardly the first such story on screen, and they’ll continue to exist as long as lieutenants of industry have buttons that need undoing. But so many of them arrive at a place of presupposed uplift far more calculated and superficial than the stopping point of Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s film – which follows an American oil executive’s effort to negotiate and execute the sale of Ferness, a seaside Scottish Highlands village, to clear the land for construction of yet another big, belching petrochemical refinery.
Certainly wry and witty, Hero is also acidic in its wisdom – couching its conclusions about humanity and humility in the persistent consequences of humiliation and failure. In one sense, it does this literally; the film’s funniest running gag features a therapist whom the oil company’s CEO pays to verbally lambaste him and whose therapeutic approach and resolve only strengthens once he’s fired. But Forsyth also applies ideas of humiliation to a shrewd observance about the obstacles we face: Hangups are often private and rarely addressed until revealed in discomforting ways, whether to everyone or to the someone we don’t want to know.
For hotshot executive “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), it’s the universe’s insistent signs that seem to cement his seemingly infinitesimal purpose. For CEO Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), it’s recognizing his attempt to retreat from a more rapid clip of corporate business is futile and he’ll only ever be seen as the man in charge. For the people of picturesque Ferness, well … it’s a betrayal of the behavior proud Scots might expect – which is to tell the company men to get bent when they would rather get paid and bugger off to better prospects.
The degree to which Hero has a happy ending depends on how much difficulty you think these folks will face as they deal with getting, or not getting, what they want. They’re all eager to escape. Some do. Some don’t. Some can’t. Studio-mandated to soften a sad bit just before it, Hero’s final image represents a bit of admirable wizardry from Forsyth and his creative team: No dialogue, no actors, no interiors. Just a second-unit shot and a phone-ringing sound effect calling back to past scenes. The ambiguity amplifies the film’s chief anxiety: Just because you reach out to connect doesn’t mean someone will answer. Of course, it could also constitute a far cheerier conclusion of friendship and deliverance – which also speaks to how Hero has endured as an embodiment of comic sophistication for four decades (and perhaps its more recent mounting as a stage musical).
Nominated for seven British Academy Film Awards, Hero won for Forsyth’s direction and earned stateside honors for Forsyth’s screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. Not a bad outcome for a film producer David Puttnam couldn’t get made until his previous effort, Chariots of Fire, generated awards heat. Eventually, Warner Brothers even ponied up more money to pay Lancaster, whose $2 million salary constituted almost one-third of Hero’s budget for what could charitably be called an extended cameo. However, Lancaster is a perfect choice for Happer, a titan who uses his eccentric-millionaire preoccupations with astronomy, astrology and verbal abuse to mask his misgivings about the man he has become. There is no “i” in “team.” Neither is there one in “Happer.”
Lancaster turns up at a pivotal juncture near the end of the film, but most of Hero falls to Riegert. Then best known for his Broadway performances and onscreen work in National Lampoon’s Animal House and Chilly Scenes of Winter, Riegert reliably depicts a man rumpled by the rigmarole of his routine. Every morning in Houston, Mac commutes in his paid-off Porsche where the drivetime-radio blares at him to get back to work and keep movin’ in like a good Texan should. Mac has been chosen to manage the Ferness deal largely because of his last name, even though he’s not Scottish (or even a Texan, for that matter). Still, it’s a big opportunity Mac doesn’t want to blow, even as he insists he’s a better negotiator on the phone … or so he says. Hero’s humiliation angle arrives early as Mac riffles his Rolodex of old flames for a one-night stand, only to ignite shouting matches. In Mac’s world, everything is an ingratiation and a negotiation. He’s getting worse at both. Maybe he no longer cares.
It’s amusing to see the preeminently profane Peter Capaldi in his younger years as obsequious Danny Oldsen, a representative from the oil company’s Aberdeen office. Oldsen serves as Mac’s guide but also spots competition in the scenario. At least early on, Capaldi and Riegert engage in a bit of body-language posturing that recalls a more mannered rendition of Scott and Schrute. Amid no shortage of stunning seaside splendor, cinematographer Chris Menges also complements Forsyth’s crack comic sensibilities with wickedly precise sight gags. Among the best is a shot that maroons these two mid-level managers on a model of the facility they hope to create, with one pathetically thin candle as the proxy flame burning at its industrial precipice.
Many moments are meant to maximize the characters’ haplessness against the tolling bells of the modern world. The folks of Ferness have felt these encroachments even before the Knox Oil Company sent its salesmen; you might say they’ve beaten them back for a couple centuries. From the tinny whine of the motorbike constantly speeding through town to the sky-shattering roar of the fighter jets that run practice bombing runs nearby, the proverbial quiet of Ferness is perpetually disrupted. And maybe the place’s intoxicating beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder. After all, Mac and Oldsen haven’t had to look at it as long as the townspeople, watching it die a bit each day as a place viable for much beyond tipping communal glasses. From the punk-rock wannabes to the poor, grieving widows, the townspeople are quickly debating the performance of Rolls-Royces and Maseratis. But they also put on a nicely aloof show for these oilmen, not wanting to appear too eager for a lowball offer.
Arbitrating all these interests is Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson, best known as Wedge Antilles from the Star Wars films). Gordon is the local innkeeper, bartender and solicitor; in Ferness, many hats and multiple incomes are standard. Although initially dismissive of Mac and Oldsen, Gordon changes his tune once the eight-figure stakes are established. Lawson delivers a deftly low-key turn as a man managing his misgivings about mediating the future of a town stuck in the past, as well as his own reputation should the sale somehow collapse. That seems unlikely as Oldsen and Mac gradually lose their ties, loosen their collars, let their stubble grow out and eventually cozy up for 42-year-old scotch and all-night dancing. But when a beachside hermit named Ben (Fulton Mackay) considers holding out, the outcome grows increasingly uncertain.
Forsyth knows capitalism and charm are inherently strange bedfellows, and that’s perhaps why he maintains such a subtle sad streak. Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a Russian sailor who occasionally docks in Ferness, seems poised to pop as pure comic relief, but there’s a sense that he also pines for more reliable camaraderie than his brief fermatas in Ferness. (Victor also happens to be a pretty solid business advisor to boot.) Only in its inference that a marine scientist (Jenny Seagrove) whom Oldsen fancies might be a mermaid does Hero lean a little too hard into easy Brigadoon-ish mysticism; the film is stronger at serendipity rather than suggestions of the supernatural. And even at 111 minutes, it feels like a few elements were snipped – namely a danced-around inference that Mac has taken a liking to Gordon’s wife, Stella (Jennifer Black).
Otherwise, it’s a work that confidently confronts both the loveliness and the loneliness of the world where these characters find themselves. Much of that context stems from Hopper’s fascination with constellations and celestial phenomena, which bleeds into others’ perspectives. The stars are somehow unspoiled, but Forsyth instinctively and correctly suspects mankind would also spoil them were the technology there and the treasures just right. What’s crucial to Hero’s consideration of such calamity is the calm it maintains. It’s an unfussed, unhurried and unforgettable story about weighing the worth of what we can see just ahead of us or hold in our hands against the value of all the stuff we try to cram into increasingly large receptacles. Its warmth endures as a respite from, and not easy resolution to, the chill of life’s many conflicts.